East Timor – an historic moment

Lonely Planet has released the first ever guidebook to East Timor, the world’s youngest nation.

Lonely Planet’s co-founder, Tony Wheeler, took the challenge of discovering East Timor in this ground-breaking first edition. Finally this tiny sliver of South East Asia – long in the headlines – is being acknowledged for the right reasons. As Tony Wheeler says of his research there: “everywhere there was a feeling that this was a country that had seen tough times but was determined to move on” (p 18).

East Timor gained full independence in 2002 after a period of UN rule. It may not be on the tourist map yet but independent travellers have started visiting this emerging destination positioned between Indonesia and Australia.  With stunning environs, rich Portuguese influence and a compelling recent history, East Timor appeals to the truly adventurous and generous spirited traveller, East Timor is in a formative period – while it’s still recovering from the Indonesian insurgency around the 1999 vote for independence, its people are regaining their identity and living conditions are slowly improving. Tourism is vital way East Timor can connect with the world. But visitors to this post crisis zone must be armed with patience and an open heart. Everything is in transition here – transport, amenities and the people themselves.

Contributing authors include Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão, the president of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, who wrote ‘Timor Leste – A People and a Nation’ and Kristy Sword Gusmão, the Australian-born First Lady of East Timor, who wrote the interesting passage entitled ‘Women of East Timor.’

Dili, the capital of East Timor, is described in the guide as a “pleasant, lazy city centred on a sweeping harbour” with the “feel of a tropical Portuguese outpost” (p 54). Baucau, the second largest town in the country and a popular haunt for Dili’s expat community, is described as a “colourful place” (pg 72) and a good base for exploring further south. Nearby Pantai Wataboo beach at Osolata boasts “breathtakingly beautiful white-sand” (p 75).

The Itineraries section is extremely helpful. With a week, travellers can see a lot but with two to three weeks you can discover almost every corner of the country. Take a tailored trip exploring ‘The Portuguese Era’ or ‘The Road to Independence’ (p 14).

In Lonely Planet’s view the more people know about the subtleties of East Timorese culture, language and history, the better.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Jose Ramos Horta launched Lonely Planet’s East Timor Phrasebook in July 2001 in Dili, East Timor. The phrasebook covers the official language of East Timor, Portuguese, and the indigenous languages of Fataluku, Makasae and Kemak. The phrasebook’s primary focus, however, is Tetun, the first language of 20% of East Timorese and the second language of most.


Q&A WITH TONY WHEELER

What appeals to you about East Timor?
East Timor is a destination I’ve had as long a writing relationship with (East Timor appeared in Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973 and in greater detail in the first edition of South-East Asia on a shoestring in 1975) or which I’ve visited in so many different incarnations (Portuguese Timor in 1974, the Indonesian province of East Timor in 1991 and now independent East Timor).

What was the highlight of your travels when researching this book?
Scuba diving (a totally new diving scene and coral and reef in very good condition) but more the feeling of being somewhere relatively untouristed and only just being rediscovered.

What was the lowlight of your travels when researching this book?  
Uncertainty – there was no way of knowing if there’d be somewhere to stay or eat on some of the trips. I always did find a bed (sometimes a rather grotty one) each night but I did miss a few meals.

What were the defining moments, people, places you encountered on the road?
Expats who were there with a sense of mission (sorting out problems, righting wrongs) in particular a couple of UN prosecutors I met up with but also a retired engineer who’d come up to Baucau to set up a galvanised roofing manufacturing business as a Rotary Club project, after the Indonesian violence there were a lot of houses to be reroofed. A lot of cheerful Timorese going about getting their lives and their country back together.

What makes East Timor unique?
It’s gone through hell and come out the other side. Unlike Iraq it’s a place where intervention (because it was welcomed) looks like working. It’s a brand new country.